Part of our plan for when Maureen retired was to buy an RV, travel the country, and visit National Parks along the way. To that end, one of the best retirement gifts Maureen received this year was a National Parks Annual Pass. And we were happy to turn our plan into reality by visiting the spectacular Carlsbad Caverns and Guadalupe Mountains National Parks.
I’ve visited these caverns once before, when I was maybe 10 years old, and that’s also the last time I went spelunking (except for in the steam tunnels at the University of Illinois). I expect that not much has changed in the intervening 45 (!) years, and I won’t contribute much new here to the geologic or visual history of the caverns, but what has changed is my perspective.
When you’re a kid, caves like this are pretty cool and vaguely dangerous, but in a safe way. They are far removed from your prior experience, and the awareness of a whole other world beneath the surface is mind-expanding. But as an adult, you have a much greater sense of the scale and specialness of the place. The beauty, immensity, uniqueness, fragility and vastness of the geologic processes are more apparent when you have had a bit of life experience.
The other element that made a strong impression on me during this visit was the courage of the original cave explorers, something that continues today. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to first experience this underground world, and the fearlessness it took to venture into a dark and unknown space, knowing a bottomless pit could lie just ahead. Relatively recently, explorers floated a rope to the highest point of the ceiling using helium balloons and managed to tie it onto a stalactite, then sent a climber up the rope to explore the roof. That took some huevos. The photo below is of an earlier National Geographic expedition.
The quick facts: the known length of Carlsbad Caverns is 30 miles. The “Big Room” is 4000 feet long, 625 feet wide and 255 feet high. A hundred other caves are in the park, most open only to specialists. Nearby Lechuguilla Cave has been explored to the length of 120 miles and 1600 feet deep. The Park Service brochure does list a few that are open to the public, such as Slaughter Canyon Cave, but it requires “long belly crawls”, is “muddy” and is “not for the claustrophobic”. We decided to take a pass!
But our visit was not without some effort. Normally an elevator takes you down 750 feet to the Big Room and then back up to the surface. But it has been out of service for months, so we hiked in both directions (my iPhone’s Health app verified the climb of 76 stories). We got a pretty good workout, but I have to say I don’t know what the parents of small children that we encountered on the first parts of the descent were thinking. Kudos for exposing the kids to nature, but this may not have been a good idea for little legs.
While Carlsbad Caverns is not the largest cave in the world, it is certainly one of the most beautiful. But this beauty is difficult to capture with a camera. Even Ansel Adams admitted as much. Adams was hired by the National Park Service to photograph the caverns, and he made some test prints (currently some are on exhibition at the visitor center), but ultimately was disappointed in his results. He couldn’t achieve the sort of dramatic lighting that was the essence of his style. When NPS finally did add electric lights to the caverns, they brought in a theatrical lighting specialist to heighten the sense of drama and scale. I don’t believe I overcame the photographic challenges, but it was hard to resist trying.
Back on the surface we smelled one aspect of speleogenesis (my new favorite word, meaning cave development) – the rotten egg aroma of hydrogen sulfide was apparent as we drove past the many oil wells in this part of the country. This gas is naturally present in the ground, and in the presence of rainwater forms sulphuric acid, which is very good at dissolving limestone. Therefore, in time, you get lots of caves.
On our way from New Mexico to Arizona we stopped at the Guadalupe Mountains National Park to stretch our legs during a short hike. The trail takes you past the ruins of a building that once was a stopover point on the Butterfield Overland Mail stagecoach route, a predecessor to the Pony Express that operated from 1857 to 1861. Our travel trailer is positively luxurious compared to what those hardy pioneers endured.
While in Carlsbad we stayed at the KOA – a little fancier than our usual campground – but it was good to have full hookups and use their laundry facilities. We also wanted to check out the campground at Guadalupe NP. It’s basically a parking lot, but is surrounded by some beautiful wilderness and hiking trails. For $8 a night it might make an attractive stopover on a future trip.
We dodged a bullet with the timing of our stay. Three days after we left for Arizona, southeast New Mexico was hit by a blizzard, with more than a foot of wind-driven snow. The Caverns and Guadalupe Pass were closed for days. Having a home with wheels is nice when you need to get out of Dodge!